E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "DREAMER opens with King dreaming about India. Since this novel takes place after 1963, it would appear that King's dream is no longer an "American" dream. Has King become frustrated with the state of the movement by this time? Does he seek peace elsewhere? our opening chapter shows the influence of Buddhism on this novel? Should one "read" DREAMER within the context of Buddhist literature as well as African American literature?
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
THE DREAM INSIDE THE DREAMER
And I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. Martin Luther King Jr., "Unfulfilled Dreams," 1968.
In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Coretta traveled in India as guests of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. They met with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during that trip, and King returned to America committed to devoting one day a week to silence and meditation. My sense is that this trip to India---a country that has been so generous in the spiritual traditions that it has given to humankind---inspired young King and helped him understand that if he wanted to improve the world he must also work on and daily improve himself.
For this reason, I couldn't resist opening Dreamer with King remembering what he experienced there during his difficult campaign in Chicago. That memory or dream gives him solace. (The italicized King sections of the novel also end with his thoughts returning to India.) There can be no question that King was frustrated with the state of the Movement in the years between 1966 and 1968---after Stokely Carmichael's promotion of the idea of "Black Power" (King felt that would only inflame racists to clamor for more White Power) and the violence he saw consuming American cities. His dream is one of world peace, as he so eloquently stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech when he said:
"Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial and moral question of our time...The foundation of such a method is love...I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits."
Should Dreamer be read as Buddhist literature? I would say, yes. (Let me repeat once again that the Buddhist experience is nothing more than the human experience.) That dimension enters the novel through Chaym Smith and what Matthew Bishop learns from him. But it should also be read---and I certainly intended for it to be read---as a celebration of the black church and the positive contributions of the philosophy we call Christianity to the Western world. That statement may cause some discomfort and unhappiness to atheists and agnostics.Through the eras of slavery and racial segregation, the black church offered its parishioners a very effective weapon (a moral worldview and activist stance) to use in their fight against white racism and oppression. It was the center of black social life and a foundation that held black communities together. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the finest products of that church and liberal black theology.
I once gave a reading from the Prologue for Dreamer at a university in one of the Western states. During the Q&A, a white philosopher asked me, "Is there any way we can have King without the Christianity?" I replied, "Sure, you can take that out of your discussions about King, but you won't be discussing ML King anymore if you do." Back in the 1980s, this is what I meant, in part, in my early essays when I used the phrase "Whole Sight," i.e., an interpretation of phenomena that is coherent, consistent and, most important of all, complete. I could have just as easily added honest as a characteristic for Whole Sight. You can't understand King, his motivations, the spiritual source of strength he drew from when he was physically attacked (beaten, stabbed, spat upon), reviled in the press during his opposition to the Vietnam war, or the certainty he had about the righteousness of his work, and his willingness to lay down his life if you remove from your conception of him the words Thomas
à Kempis used for the title of his beautiful devotional classic: The Imitation of Christ. Remove that from ML King, and you have someone else entirely.
Just as King is inconceivable without Christianity, so too are two millennia of Western intellectual history, culture, philosophy, the history of science, folklore, politics, and literature before 1960 impossible to imagine without the shaping influence of that religion and its many variations. But, sure, we can give a Buddhist reading to Dreamer. (We can give a Buddhist reading to anything.) After all, one of King's favorite hymns was "In Christ There Is No East Nor West."
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 8:14 AM